(Alison Cross)

Isolated from friends and the LGBTQ community, University of Connecticut senior Megan Graham at times found herself questioning her queer identity during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I felt a bit more insecure about my identity being away from my friends who are within the community,” Graham said. “I didn’t have the same outlet as I did to be myself without judgment. I questioned myself more and wished I had more people to talk to about it.”

At UConn, Graham is the president of the Queer Collective, an LGBTQ discussion-based support organization that is run through the Rainbow Center, the heart of UConn’s LGBTQ community. Graham said that some of her self-doubts stemmed from losing these LGBTQ affirming spaces as the pandemic shut down campus and moved classes online.

Like Graham, many young adults in the LGBTQ community lost their outlets and safe spaces during the pandemic. A new survey by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit that works to prevent LGBTQ suicide, found that in 2020, a majority of LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 suffered from poor mental health in homes that did not support their sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to the study, 69% of 18- to 24-year-olds described symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder; 40% reported symptoms of major depressive disorder; 87% said that COVID-19 negatively impacted their mental health; and 67% said their mental health was “poor” most of the time or always during COVID-19. Only 34% of respondents said their home was LGBTQ-affirming.

The survey reported that 9% of LGBTQ 18- to 24-year-olds attempted suicide and 34% seriously considered suicide. In contrast to the general population, 25.5% of 18- to 24-year-olds considered suicide, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study conducted during the pandemic.

“The reason we have such disproportionate rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses is because people have to carry the weight of an identity that either isn’t accepted by others around them, or they have to hide who they are, leading them to live their lives never fully satisfied with who they present themselves as,” Graham said.

The data also revealed vast racial disparities. Native/Indigenous LGBTQ youth ages 13-24 reported the highest rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts at 52% and 31%, respectively, followed by Black respondents with rates of 47% and 21% and Latinx respondents at 43% and 18%. White and Asian/Pacific Islanders experienced the lowest rates. 39% of white respondents considered suicide and 12% attempted suicide. Asian/Pacific Islanders had rates of 38% and 12%. Respondents of more than one race/ethnicity considered suicide at a rate of 48% and attempted suicide at a rate of 21%.

Graham said that she believes supportive and affirming LGBTQ spaces, such as clubs, discussion groups and organizations, alleviate stress, depression and anxiety.

“When people within the community are welcomed into spaces like this, they are allowed to relieve this weight, find friends who are like them and give them access to resources and information they may not have had before. Overall, they get to feel less alone and feel validated in who they are,” Graham said.

The data supports Graham’s perspective. According to the Trevor Project, suicide attempts were reduced by 6% when schools were LGBTQ affirming and reduced by 5% when the home was LGBTQ affirming.

Now, Graham works to rebuild membership at the Queer Collective after the pandemic caused attendance to plummet. Graham notes that while the pandemic allowed some to express their sexuality and gender more freely out of public view, others felt trapped in homes that did not respect their identity.

“I can’t speak for the entire community–every person experienced this pandemic differently,” Graham said. “I’m sure some felt more empowered while others felt extinguished.”